Saving Private Ryan was a pretty good movie. It mixed comedy with drama, it was entertaining, and of course, it had good characters. I say of course because the movie was directed by Stephen Spielberg, and great characters is his trademark, from Jaws to Schindler’s List.
But unlike Jaws and Schindler’s List, I felt there was something missing about the characters in Saving Private Ryan. Ever since the movie first came out, I’ve gone back to this issue several times, unable to put my finger on why the characters were not great, the way they are in so many of Spielberg’s other films. Who can forget the depth found in the characters of Jaws, as the three men spend an evening in the cabin of their boat?
But then the answer came like a anvil falling on Daffy Duck’s head: Saving Private Ryan wasn’t based on a true story, as much as I wanted it to be. Saving Private Ryan should have been a movie called Saving Colonel Whitman.
George Whitman was ten years younger than his brother Walt, and enlisted in the confederate army after the battle of Fort Sumter. Almost a year and a half later a listing of fallen and wounded soldiers included “First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore”, which Walt thought was his brother George, so he immediately made his way south to find him. He eventually found George alive, having been wounded at the battle of Fredericksburg; Walt Whitman stayed to care for his brother, and then later volunteered his services in Washington DC as a nurse in army hospitals.
How much does the audience of Saving Private Ryan know about Ryan’s brothers? How can the audience feel the commitment of Ryan staying with the only “brothers” he had left (fellow soldiers), if we don’t know what his relationship with his real brothers were like?
In Walt and George, the answer is part of the story itself. Unlike in the story of Saving Private Ryan, the person charged with “saving” George is his brother. And what a body of poetry and prose we have because of it! Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps is filled with wonderful poetry, but it’s in his prose work Specimen Days that let us into his world.
“FALMOUTH, VA., opposite Fredericksburgh, December 21, 1862. — Begin my visits among the camp hospitals in the army of the Potomac. Spend a good part of the day in a large brick mansion on the banks of the Rappahannock, used as a hospital since the battle — seems to have receiv’d only the worst cases. Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket. In the door-yard, towards the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel-staves or broken boards, stuck in the dirt.”
The opening scene in Saving Private Ryan is well-done and hard to watch. I know some people who like the movie but can’t watch the first scene, but if I had to guess, I would say what Whitman witnessed was more intriguing thematically; it would have carried past a single scene in its scope, and Tom Hank’s character would have been far more affected by what he witnessed as part of the story.
But Tom Hanks is no Walt Whitman. Turning Saving Private Ryan into this wonderful period-piece would have required something Hollywood doesn’t have. Saving Colonel Whitman really would benefit if it were not directed by Spielberg, as good as his characters are, and instead directed by someone else — big name, less Hollywood: in short, the Coen brothers. These two guys make great characters as well, and their big-name indie feel style would have fit perfectly here. Besides, they’re brothers! It would have been the icing on the cake.
The battle scene at the end of Saving Private Ryan was well done, but it had a flaw, which was what happened afterwards. Does Spielberg leave the ending open, or have more of a closed one? He chose more of a closed one, by fast-forwarding in time to Ryan as an old man at a graveyard. It was choppy, and reeked of happy-ending-Hollywood. But George and Walt had a life after the war; no need for fast-forwarding to Arlington National Cemetery. Their relationship was such that the movie could have ended sometime during the civil war or gone further, and would have still worked. Personally, I would have chosen the former, and I think the Coen brothers would agree with me.